School system flunks repair

Baltimore County audit reveals pressing maintenance issues

March 19, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,Sun Reporter

As she walks the hallways of Mars Estates Elementary, Principal Linda M. Chapin says she knows about the rusty bathroom stalls, the cracks that crisscross the terrazzo flooring, the missing wall tiles here and there. She also knows all too well that while her office might be baking at 80 degrees, other rooms are quite chilly.

But she also sees the sparkling new windows and blinds installed last year that send sunlight streaming into classrooms, the cafeteria and gymnasium of the 57-year-old school.

"Some of the old windows, you couldn't see through them," says Chapin, who has been principal at the Essex school for three years. "But we're an old building, and you get some dents."

When auditors descended upon Baltimore County's schools late last year to zero in on the weaknesses of the system's plans for teaching children, they expected to find the typical lapses in communication between top administrators and teachers, poor coordination of new programs and insufficient training. But the team, which included former and current superintendents, teachers and administrators from across the country, said they were shocked to also find school buildings in extreme disrepair.

"This is the one where you flunked," Fenwick W. English, the lead auditor of the independent review, told school board members last week during their meeting. "One of your principals said, `If it doesn't arc or spark ... no one is going to come by and get to it.'"

English added that it was difficult to fathom how teachers are able concentrate and teach in those schools and said "the repairs that are needed really kind of broke our hearts."

School board members and administrators said the auditors rightly noted deficiencies, and they stressed their commitment to improving those conditions. But, they added, the district has some of the state's oldest schools, and county and state funding consistently falls far short of the system's needs.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said last week that he is perplexed by criticism of the school system's buildings -- especially the elementary schools, which were recently renovated at a cost of $280 million in county and state funding.

"We're putting a lot of funding toward bringing schools up to a reasonable standard," he said. "It's clear we have a major systemic problem, and we're addressing it."

Smith said he is troubled that principals and other school employees feel they must tolerate deteriorating buildings.

"That [the school system] would institutionalize such a low standard of expectation is a real concern to me," he said.

Schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said that the school system realizes that every school isn't in top-notch condition but that the district is responding as efficiently and quickly as possible to the building needs.

"If we had a fully funded maintenance program for 10 years, there would be no problem," he said. "We know we have limited resources. We move on, and we take care of the things we can."

English said the audit team found schools with such poor climate control that temperatures in different areas of a building ranged from extremely cold to extremely hot. They came across stained or missing ceiling tiles, drafty windows, safety hazards and plumbing problems, he said.

After visiting 157 schools -- and peering into more than 3,000 classrooms -- the team found a "significant number" of them in poor condition.

The audit team heard a consistent groan of frustration from school administrators, especially principals, about the slow pace of repairs and routine maintenance, said English, who has overseen about 60 curriculum audits since 1979 for Phi Delta Kappa International, a nonprofit group that analyzes curriculum management for school systems.

"Many interviewees reported that facilities in BCPS were in a state of crisis," the team wrote in a 423-page audit released last week.

"This is a problem, and it's not just aesthetic," English said during the board meeting. "This is a problem of learning and teaching in facilities that are conducive to improving achievement for all students."

Michael G. Sines, the school system's executive director of facilities, said he empathizes with principals' frustration. To improve the system, he added this year a computerized maintenance request system that enables administrators to place work orders and track them.

"What Dr. English's team observed didn't occur overnight," Sines said. "It is the direct result of the number of years of facilities being underfunded."

He said that progress has been made in recent years because of additional county funding targeted at renovations but that it will take much more to bring all buildings up to par. He estimated it could cost $1.25 billion -- and take until 2033 -- to renovate the county's 24 high schools, assuming an average of $23 million a year in state funding.

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